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The Cowboys are seeking their comfort zone in defensive coordinator search

The Cowboys are being rather conservative right now.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at San Francisco 49ers
He’s probably not a big fan of change.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The list of candidates for the Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator position keeps growing. Ron Rivera and Mike Zimmer have already interviewed, and reports on Wednesday are that the team is also interested in Rex Ryan and Wink Martindale as part of the search. Marquand Manuel was also recently added. With the departure of Joe Whitt to join Dan Quinn on the Washington Commanders staff, the only internal candidate seems to be Aden Durde, but he almost seems to have slipped people’s minds.

It sounds like it is going to be at least a few more days before we get the decision. But the names that we know tell us a lot about the way things are run in Dallas. All of them carry well known reputations, and in the case of Zimmer and Durde, history working for the owner.

That reflects some of the basic characteristics of how things work at The Star. Coaching hires don’t just reflect the desired direction of the team. They also are driven by what the decision makers are comfortable with. In general, people grow more cautious and become more risk-averse as they age. Most NFL owners fit the senior citizen profile, and that certainly includes Jerry Jones. However, most other owners do not serve as their own general managers. Others hire someone else and let them take the lead on coaching hires. Many of the GMs around the league seek innovation and creativity. That is a recognition of how the game is constantly evolving and changing. It leads to hiring young coaches with a certain view of how to adapt to things.

Adaptation is not a big thing for Jerry or Stephen Jones. The glory years of the 1990s are always in their minds, and they seem to have a yearning to restore that by falling back on the known and comfortable rather than bring in a new guy with new ideas. This leads to them wanting to interview people with well established résumés, and in many cases, a real sense of familiarity. All of the known candidates fit that, although Ryan’s inclusion was more than a bit surprising given how long he has been working as a commentator and analyst for ESPN. But he also interviewed with the Denver Broncos last offseason, showing his interest in returning to coaching.

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Culture is important in shaping an NFL organization, but if there is an inherent flaw in the culture of a team, it can be a problem. The conservative nature flowing from the ownership seems to fit that. Too much weight is given to experience, including how three of the candidates have head coaching experience. That is something we see in many past hires by the Cowboys, including Quinn. That seemed to work out, but others have not. That preference also probably extends to McCarthy, given his own history. Most people are more comfortable with those who have similar backgrounds.

All of this does not mean that Dallas is headed for a disastrous situation. What they need is to hit on one of the candidates that also has the flexibility to change with the times, as well as an ability to work with the talent on hand. That could make Zimmer the best option here. He has shown that he can still put strong defenses on the field and get his players quickly up to speed with his scheme. Many coordinators need a year or two to get things clicking, but Zimmer has been able to get his defenses working at a high level of efficiency by the end of his first season in previous stops.

It certainly makes sense to be thorough in the process of hiring a new DC, but there is a time factor involved as well. There are currently a handful of other openings for one in the league, so there is competition for the available candidates. The ownership does not want to be zeroing in on one just to have someone else beat them to making a good offer. Further, the new DC needs to have input into the talent acquisition process, which is a minor incentive to get him in place to start working with Will McClay on what he needs to add.

It is also a major factor in who to keep for the roster as well. Quinn relied on hybrid safety/linebacker players, which did not work out as well as hoped by the end of last season. It is highly unlikely that the new DC will want to go that way. That could mean that the team will just let Jayron Kearse go in free agency, and it could also affect the decisions on Johnathan Hankins and Dorance Armstrong. Quinn had some specific preferences for his defensive linemen, which is going to be different under the next DC. Additionally, there is the possibility that Leighton Vander Esch could be a cap casualty due to his problems staying on the field, but if there are any discussions about that, the new DC needs to be in the thick of them.

Something to note is that all four of the NFC East teams are going into 2024 with new DCs. The Commanders have Whitt, the Philadelphia Eagles just hired Vic Fangio, and the New York Giants hired Shane Bowen. Both the Eagles and Commanders also have new offensive coordinators, Kellen Moore and Kliff Kingsbury respectively. Within the division, there are a lot of new looks coming, and there is always the factor of how quickly the new incumbents can get things working well. Just add that to why Zimmer may be a good choice for the Cowboys.

It also may be a minor distraction for the owners as well, as they probably don’t like seeing so many new faces due to their nature. But that is way down on the list of things impacting their own hiring decision.

The coordinator is just the first step. He is going to want to assemble his own staff, which could lead to the departure of many or all of the current assistants like Durde and Al Harris. Contrast that with the report that Dallas blocked tight end coach Lunda Wells from interviewing with the Commanders for their offensive line coaching job and Al Harris also being blocked from interviewing. Continuity on offense was important in the Wells’ decision, no doubt affected by the emergence of Jake Ferguson last year. But the new DC will trigger more interviews and hiring. That in turn becomes part of the competition for the best candidates.

Change is unsettling, especially for those with that old-school mindset. The current candidates for the DC job show how the management wants to get someone they feel comfortable with, and that may be more important in their minds than who is really best for the job.

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